African Studies Lesotho
Scott Rosenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0142


Most of Lesotho’s people are of southern Sotho origin, speak Sesotho, and identify themselves as Basotho; however, Lesotho is not as linguistically and ethnically homogeneous as people assume, and small segments of peoples still speak Nguni languages or identify themselves by distinct clans. Landlocked inside of South Africa, almost 80 percent of modern Lesotho is a mountainous area at elevations of 2,100–3,400 meters (7,000 to 11,000 feet). This remote area was sparsely settled or uninhabited before the colonial era. Those who were there consisted of San hunters and gatherers, who moved into the region thousands of years ago, and Nguni populations, who settled the southern part of the country prior to the arrival of Sotho-speaking peoples. Around 1500 the Sotho-speaking Fokeng clan crossed the Vaal River into the Free State and began to settle in the Caledon (Mohokare) Valley by 1600. It was at this time that they began to interact with groups that had previously arrived in the region. These earlier inhabitants included San communities as well as Nguni speakers who had arrived a century earlier. The intermingling between these two groups produced the BaPhuthi, who inhabit the southern regions of Lesotho today. The modern Basotho nation was founded during the early 19th century by Moshoeshoe. His power was not based on a clear hereditary right to govern a preexisting community; rather, his initial power stemmed from establishing his small Koena clan on Thaba Bosiu, a naturally fortified and secure plateau. He then proceeded to build his wealth and power through cattle raids against neighboring peoples and the distribution of the spoils among his supporters. Strategic alliances with several other Basotho leaders led, by the 1830s, to recognition of Moshoeshoe as Morena e Moholo (great chief). Moshoeshoe was still in the process of consolidating power when the Basotho were forced to confront continued intrusions from Boer trekkers seeking to settle in land claimed by Moshoeshoe. Although the Basotho were able to repel a Boer invasion in 1858, by 1868 the Basotho were on the brink of defeat and the territory claimed by the Basotho was annexed by the British as Basutoland. By the 1920s, Lesotho had become a net importer of food and was becoming increasingly dependent on the wages earned by migrants working in the South African mines. By the time of the kingdom gained independence in 1966, Lesotho’s economy was almost entirely based on wages remitted by men working in the mines. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Lesotho resembled South Africa’s ideal for an African “Homeland,” namely one that was politically independent yet provided a continuing source of cheap labor. However, the ending of apartheid had a profound economic impact on Lesotho as the number of men employed in the mines dropped from more than 150,000 in 1991 to around 54,000 by the end of the decade. Four years after gaining independence, the ruling Basotho National Party (BNP) annulled the 1970 election results, suspended the constitution, and ushered in sixteen years of authoritarian civilian rule. In 1986, prodded by the South African government, the military overthrew the government and established the first of two military regimes, which ruled Lesotho from 1986 to 1993. In 1993, Lesotho returned to democratic rule with the victory of the Basotho Congress Party (BCP). The BCP and breakaway factions from that party would govern the country for the next twenty years. As a result of the violence after the 1998 elections, a mixed member system was introduced that included proportional representation in an attempt to prevent future post-election violence. In 2012, Lesotho saw its first democratic transition of power.

General Overviews

Very few books have been written that cover extensive periods of Basotho history or society. Ellenberger, et al. 1992 covers the pre-colonial period, whereas Gill 1993 treats Basotho history up to the date of publication. Hinks 2009, a church history, also serves to provide a broad overview of events in Lesotho from pre-colonial society up to the present.

  • Ellenberger, D. Fred, and James C. MacGregor. History of the Basuto: Ancient and Modern. Morija, Lesotho: Morija Museum and Archives, 1992.

    This work provides an account of pre-colonial Basotho history, recounting the origins of many of the Basotho clans and their traditions. Most of the information in this book is based upon primary accounts. The book also details the rise to power of Moshoeshoe and provides much information not found elsewhere. The work also includes important genealogical tables.

  • Gill, Stephen. A Short History of Lesotho. Morija, Lesotho: Morija Mission Archives, 1993.

    A comprehensive history of Lesotho, from the first settlers up to the 1993 elections. The work provides a balanced historical perspective, discussing the colonial powers and the chieftainship as well as the commoners. This work is easily accessible to those who are unfamiliar with Lesotho’s history, and it provides an excellent starting point for those wanting to learn more about Lesotho.

  • Hinks, Craig. Quest for Peace: An Ecumenical History of the Church in Lesotho. Morija, Lesotho: Christian Council of Lesotho, 2009.

    Commissioned and published by the heads of churches in Lesotho and the Christian Council of Churches, this work was initially intend to be a history of the church in Lesotho. However, it constitutes one of the most comprehensive and detailed works on Lesotho. Although most of the events covered are connected to the church, Hinks’s thorough research provides detailed accounts on facets of Lesotho history that have not been compiled in any other source. One of the strengths of the book is the rich detail regarding the political and developmental history of Lesotho since independence.

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